By Alan Donovan
Published March 21, 2015
Nairobi Gallery, at the junction of Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway, is hosting a private show of the work of two of East Africa’s pioneer artists in the afternoon of March 29, 2015. The work on show shall be that of Elkana Ongesa and Expedito Mwebe Kibbula who are aptly described interchangeably as “two of Africa’s leading artistic geniuses” and “East Africa’s most influential and creative pioneer artists” whose “works are known in many countries of the world.”
Born in 1944, Elkana Ongesa comes from a long line of traditional stone carvers from Kisii in south-western Kenya. He was the first in his family to combine his innate skills with the broadening influence of training through Fine Arts at Makerere University in Kampala and the University of Nairobi where he completed his landmark post-graduate thesis on stone carving in East Africa.
Ongesa’s sculptures grace many public spaces around the world including the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, USA; UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France; Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia; Caltex head office in Houston, Texas, USA; and and Changchun City in China.
Elkana Ongesa’s first show was was the opening exhibition of the former African Heritage on Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue in 1973. Amadou M’Bow, the then director of UNESCO, was so impressed by Ongesa’s sculpture of a bird that he saw at Joseph Murumbi (a former vice-president of Kenya and an art collector)’s house in Nairobi’s Muthaiga (which is now in the Murumbi Gallery at the Kenya National Archives o Moi Avenue) that he requested Murumbi to ask Elkana Ongesa to create a similar sculpture for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. In 1978, the Kenyan government made a special gift to UNESCO of the remarkable giant bird sculpture by Elkana Ongesa.
Before his death in 1990, Murumbi asked Ongesa to sculpt a statue for his gravesite and the latter selected a huge black-and-white granite boulder from Lukenya hills in Ukambani which he formed into the image of a monumental “Bird of Peace Emerging from the Stone of Despair” that echoes the speech of the US Civil Rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
When the Murumbi Peace Memorial was opened in 2009 by Michael Ranneberger, the then US American Ambassador to Kenya, Elkana Ongesa was once again asked to create a unique work; this time for the US Embassy in Kenya. His magnificent 30-tonne granite sculpture, “Dancing Birds”, stands at the entrance to the embassy in Gigiri next to the UN offices.
Elkana Ongesa continues to organise and participate in many international symposia on stone sculpture, including a recent one held near Tabaka in south-western Kenya, called “Stones that Talk” which drew participants from all parts of the world.
Expedito Mwebe Kibbula, on his part, is an exceptionally talented and innovative artist, sculptor, designer, and builder whose works include interior design, furniture, painting, architecture, industrial design and environmental art.
Born in Uganda in 1952, Expedito Mwebe Kibbula graduated from Makerere University with a bachelor’s degree in arts in 1975. Soon after, he started lecturing in art at Kenyatta University College in Nairobi before launching his career in the “real world”.
Kibbula has achieved commercial success by commissioning his works to churches, universities and architects. The monumental 12-foot high circular mural in the foyer of the All African Conference of Churches in Westlands area of Nairobi, is hewn from a series of upright planks that bind the spectator with mythical images and symbols from across the African continent; it is a representation of life in all its complexity.
Kibbula’s extraordinary art works have been seen in public areas throughout East Africa, most notably in the interiors of the early Samburu and Keekorok Lodges in Kenya and his stunning hand sculpted wooden panels that adorn the Bambara lounges in the Nairobi Serena and Kampala Serena hotels. “The Meeting Place”, a metal sculpture he created, is the centerpiece of the Nairobi Serena Hotel lobby.
Kibbula, who represented East Africa in the USAID Mid-America International Fellowship and Residency Programme in 1993/1994, created a unique sculpture in stone for the late Joseph and Sheila Murumbi which now stands at the Murumbi Peace Memorial at the Nairobi City Park. It represents a “Universal Couple”, including all of humanity in its quest to achieve and better itself through the dignity of artistic creation – a fitting tribute to the late Murumbis.
Expedito Kibbula continues on his quest for excellence in the arts, alongside his son and protégé, Michelangelo, whose works also feature in this exhibition at Nairobi Gallery in the Old Provincial Commissioner’s office.